Reality/Fiction, Fiction/Reality

Agnès Varda

Agnès Varda

One of the sidebars of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s second annual documentary festival, the sprawling Art of the Real, showcases non-fiction and fiction films made throughout the long, remarkable career of the great French director Agnès Varda.

In a 2009 interview, Varda said, “I need images, I need representation which deals in other means than reality. We have to use reality but get out of it. That’s what I try to do all the time.” This approach to storytelling is reflected in her rich and innovative narrative features as well as her various kinds of nonfiction work–diary films, essay films, experimental documentaries and anthropological sketches.

“The Actualities of Agnès Varda” opens with her first film, a marital drama, “La Pointe Courte” (1955), set in the French coastal fishing village of Sète (where Varda partially grew up).  Her celebrated feature “Vagabond” (1985) stars Sandrine Bonnaire (a career-defining performance) as Mona, a young professional who abandons her comfortable urban life for a solitary existence on the road. Regardless of gender, social/economic class and ethnicity, the people with whom Mona interacts in her travels, played by mostly non-actors, are all baffled by her choices and motivation.

Ten documentaries are also part of the program. “Black Panthers” (1968), a casual portrait of the revolutionaries, focuses on a “Free Huey” rally in Oakland, CA. Varda shot 2,500 photos in Cuba in December 1962 and edited 1,500 for her exuberant photo montage, “Salut les Cubains” (1963).  With a two-year old, son Mathieu Demy, Varda was “a bit stuck at the house,” and “Daguerreotypes,” (1976) is both a group portrait of her neighbors on Rue Daguerre and a trenchant comment on how domestic/familial responsibilities circumscribe women’s creative work.  “The Gleaners and I,” (2000) Varda’s glorious and perhaps best-known documentary, focuses on what is gathered, what is left behind–in fields, on the shoreline, in dumpsters, from garbage, and with images.

“The Actualities of Agnès Varda,” part of Art of the Real, runs from Friday, April 17 through Friday, April 24, will be shown at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Francesca Beale Theater. A Q&A with Agnès Varda will follow screenings of “La Pointe Courte,” “Vagabond,” and a program of four of her short documentaries. Varda will also introduce “Daguerreotypes.”

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Bunnies, Bonnets and Carbonated Beverages

Milan, NY, 4/5/15

Milan, NY, 4/5/15

Milan, NY, 4/5/15

Milan, NY, 4/5/15

Kingston, NY, 4/4/15

Kingston, NY, 4/4/15

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The Genuine Article: Sirk’s Profound Weepie

Douglas Sirk

Douglas Sirk

Douglas Sirk’s great Technicolor melodrama, “Imitation of Life” (1959), rare in so many ways, is likely unique in that it both deals with issues of race/racial identity and a woman’s right to self-determination in post-WWII America, and has credits for “jewels by” and “gowns by” (all glitteringly gorgeous as worn by perfect, platinum-blonde Lana Turner).

Widow Lora Meredith (Turner), newly arrived in New York, frantically searches for her young daughter Susie who has wandered away during their Coney Island outing. She not only finds her frolicking in the sand with Sarah Jane, a slightly older girl, but two other people who will play major roles in her life: Annie Johnson (lovely Juanita Moore), who will become Lora’s gracious housekeeper and irreplaceable friend; and steadfast suitor, suave Steve Archer (John Gavin), a photographer with ambition (MoMA is mentioned).

Lora, with her steely determination to have a great Broadway career, but few material resources, realizes that Annie, African American, is at even looser ends and invites her and Sarah Jane to her cold-water flat for the night. Annie offers to work for her without payment until Lora, who’s registering with modeling agencies and knocking on agents’ doors, finds work.

Lora, refusing to be “cheapened” by the dictates of a powerful agent, tied down by Steve (who thinks his love means he can prohibit her from chasing her dream), or distracted by responsibilities to Susie (whom she loves), achieves super-stardom on the stage. After high school, sultry Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), acutely aware since childhood that she can pass for white (“I want a chance in life”), callously rejects Annie and runs away to pursue a career as a cabaret dancer.

Sirk’s profound weepie traps his characters in their time and denies them an awareness of the importance love or makes them suffer for loving too much. He’s said of his film’s conclusion, “You don’t believe in the happy ending, and you’re really not supposed to.”

“Imitation of Life” opens today at Film Forum for a one-week run.

Although he had had a successful Hollywood career, Douglas Sirk’s ground-breaking films (which he camouflaged as melodramas) were only known (but wildly appreciated) by devoted cineastes in 1979 when I persuaded an editor I’d been writing for at the Village Voice to let me photograph the director (and provide a deep caption).

I went to a midtown hotel, shot one roll of Tri-X 35mm film, and there are two portraits–sometimes three–that I love. The image at the top of this page is being sold, in a special Film Forum edition, 25 8.5″x11″ signed archival ink jet prints, in honor of the presentation of the dazzling new 4K color restoration of “Imitation of Life.”  To buy a print or find out more, click here.

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Manoel de Oliveira 1908-2015

Manoel de Oliveira, NYC, 8/1/02

Manoel de Oliveira, NYC, 8/1/02

The great auteur, Manoel de Oliveira, born in  Porto, Portugal, died today at the age of 106. I had the great privilege of photographing him in New York in 2002. He was almost 94 and it’s not ageism in reverse to acknowledge that he was the liveliest, most interesting person in the room.  I think I expected him to live forever.

Preternaturally prolific, particularly after his mid-seventies, when he began releasing a film almost every year, de Oliveira directed more than 60 features and shorts. His first film, an 18-minute, silent documentary, “Hard Labor on the River Douro,” about river workers in Porto was made in 1931. Invited by the Viennale to direct a one-minute trailer for its 2014 festival, it became his last film, “Charariz das Virtudes.” Some of de Oliveira’s best-known films include “The Satin Slipper” (1985),”I’m Going Home” (2001), and “Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl” (2010).

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Dark Moods in A Sun-Bleached Landscape

Rick Alverson

Rick Alverson

Director Rick Alverson follows up his highly polarizing previous feature, “The Comedy” (I’m thumbs up), with a story of another, albeit very different, man at loose ends.

In “Entertainment,” Neil Hamburger (Gregg Turkington’s standup persona), makes his way in his corroded Corolla through the Mojave Desert to Los Angeles, “on tour,” performing his comedy routine (for a literally captive audience at a California state prison, in crummy lounges and at an RV park), and taking in the tourist sites, such that they are–an airplane graveyard, an “olde” fake western town, an oil field.

Hamburger, dressed in a ill-fitting tux and brocade vest, his stringy hair styled in an extreme comb-over, greased across his forehead and skull, cradles three drinks, like a baby, in the crook of his arm. His comic timing is non-existent. With a voice with the appeal of “neils” on a blackboard, punctuated by an equally abrasive constant clearing of his throat, he delivers jokes that are off-the-mark, offensive, aggressive, not funny (except when they’re hilarious)–sometimes simultaneously. Rape is a favorite topic.

Hamburger’s off-stage appearance is only slightly less disturbing. He has a JCPenney wardrobe, polo shirts and shapeless pants, and a snapback cap promoting a Chinese restaurant, “Hoong Fat.” His affect is subdued, resigned, his posture poor, sinking into himself, evoking sympathy from the viewer.

His encounters with other people, including a distant and successful cousin (John C. Reilly), who owns orange groves and a plane, are at best awkward. But he endlessly tries to connect with Maria, his daughter, whom he calls “sweetheart” (identifying himself as Daddy), leaving interminable (and unrequited) voicemails. And in his dreamlife, he wears an all-white cowboy outfit, a glowing suit with a bejeweled, wide-lapeled jacket and an enormous hat.  Although the outfit is undeniably odd, it’s somehow also angelic.

Less happens in “Entertainment,” than in “The Comedy,” the sameness echoing the reality of Hamburger’s life on the road. He reaches L.A. and the “big break” booking at a new Gilded Age Hollywood Hills mansion, ends in disaster, with him tumbling into the pool.

Yet the “anti-comic,” like Samuel Beckett’s hero, must be thinking, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Maybe Alverson and  Hamburger (who says that he “traveled a long distance to carry these jokes” to the audience) are trying to jolt us out of our often banal pop/consumerist culture, by giving us exactly the entertainment we deserve.

“Entertainment,” the closing night film of the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 44th New Directors/New Films, will be shown on Sunday, March 29 at 4:00 pm (MoMA, Titus 1) and 7:00 pm (FSLC, Walter Reade Theater). A Q&A with Rick Alverson will follow both screenings.

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Viewing A Great Photographer’s Whole Earth Catalog

Wim Wenders

Wim Wenders

Wim Wenders’ new documentary, “The Salt of the Earth,” an homage to the legendary Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, explores the life and work of the artist/humanitarian/ecologist. Co-directed by Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, the photographer’s filmmaker son, who had already shot vast hours of footage of his father while he had “taken his son to work” around the world.

For more than 40 years, Salgado has been a photographer nomad, bearing witness with his exquisite and empathetic images, always black and white, to indigenous cultures, workers (most famously those in a gold mine in Brazil) and major catastrophes, sometimes natural, but more often manmade, the results of war.

After his time in Rwanda photographing and living with the horrors of the genocide, Salgado was depleted. To help him heal, his wife (and creative partner), Lélia Wanick Salgado, suggested that the family return from Paris to the 600-hectare cattle ranch in Aimorés, Brazil, where he’d grown up and restore their personal earth.

What had once been a place of wild beauty was equally depleted. But miraculously the reforestation project begun then (which has included the planting of two million trees) has successfully restored the beautiful land (now an ecological reserve and national park).

Inspired by this home-grown beauty, in 2004 Salgado began his “Genesis” project, photographing pristine landscapes, and wildlife. In one of the most interesting “behind the scenes” footage of any photo shoot, Salgado slides on his stomach across a frozen beach toward a community of walruses.

Although Salgado has been criticized for layering “beauty” on top of misery, aestheticizing pain (an ongoing, general argument in documentary photography), I strongly disagree that the accusation applies to this work. It’s not necessary to know that Salgado spent weeks, often months with his subjects to recognize his respect for them and deep concern for their lives and his idealistic drive to bring change.

See “The Salt of the Earth” on as big a screen as possible. It’s glorious (as Salgado is talking about his work), to see his spectacular photographs, projected many multiples larger than his prints in galleries/museums or in his books.

“The Salt of the Earth” open on Friday, March 27 at the Angelika Film Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and in Los Angeles.

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Un Cuento de Dos Ciudades

Bill & Turner Ross

Bill & Turner Ross

For generations, before the drug cartels metastasized into Piedras Negras, Mexico, and the construction of the xenophobes’ wall was begun in Eagle Pass, TX, the neighbors on opposite sides of the Rio Grande lived together harmoniously, doing business together, celebrating together, intermarrying.

During the filming in New Orleans of their previous documentary, “Tchoupitoulas,” the Ross Brothers, Bill & Turner, decided that their next project would be a “non-fiction western.” Years of planning went into “Western.” And then, with simply a telephone pitch, the mayor of Eagle Pass, Chad Foster, a real life (bi-lingual) cowboy hero, agreed to let them set up their cinéma verité shop in his office, and as they followed him with cameras, facilitated their acceptance in his town.

For the filmmakers, Chad’s most important introduction was to cattleman Martín Wall, whose family has been in the business for over 120 years, and who’s Texas big–his stature, his mustache, his pick-up truck and his love for his young, ponytailed daughter Brylyn, who he’s raising as a single father.

“Western,” sharply-observed and moving, opens with a morning-in-America (and Mexico) shot of the Rio Grande at dawn.  And daily life unfolds over the thirteen months that Bill & Turner were embedded in Eagle Pass: meetings in Chad’s office (on his desk a sign says, “no wall between amigos”) with constituents, and friends from both towns; Martín and his workers bring cattle from Piedras Negras to his ranch and prepare them to be re-sold; Chad’s Mexican counterpart, the well-liked José Manuel Maldonado works on real estate development and opportunity in his town; the people on both sides of the border go to cafés, church, carnivals, rodeos, the annual  Friendship Day Parade.

Unwanted change arrives. Drug violence–brutal murders and torture in Acuña, near Piedras Negras–causes the USDA to shut down the livestock trade and the open-endedness of the ban creates anxiety for Martín. A sudden thunderstorm causes flooding and a plane carrying Mayor Maldonado to view the devastating damage explodes, likely the work of the cartels.  The border fence, which Chad opposes, encroaches.

“Western,” a film that strides the new border in cinema between documentary and narrative, ends with a shot at sunset. Chad (who declined to run for a fourth term–as he tells a reporter, “I didn’t want to be a pig at the trough”), rides in his open Jeep, looking out over the Rio Grande. The neighbors’ simpatico relationship has been tragically and forever altered.

“Western,” included in the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 44th New Directors/New Films, will be shown on Sunday, March 22 at 3:30 pm (MoMA, Titus 1) and Monday, March 23 at 8:45 pm (FSLC, Walter Reade Theater). A Q&A with Bill & Turner Ross will follow both screenings.

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